WASHINGTON - Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins was asked after Friday's loss to Detroit whether he considered it a staggering one. His quick response was that losing to the Pistons, the top seed in the East, was not staggering.
"Now, if we lose tomorrow night, I would consider that a staggering loss," Collins had said.
The Miami Heat, which has occupied the Atlantic Division cellar all season, stayed close enough to the Wizards last night to make them nervous - but not stagger - as Washington held on for an 89-82 win at MCI Center.
The win, coupled with the Milwaukee Bucks' 98-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last night, left the Wizards and Bucks tied for the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards (32-34) had trouble sustaining an offensive flow throughout the evening, but when things got too worrisome, they turned to Jerry Stackhouse, who scored 37 points - one short of his season high - hitting 14 of 15 foul shots.
"That's my game, slashing and taking the ball to the basket," said Stackhouse, who has hit 39 of his past 42 free throws. "I still don't feel I go enough, but I am trying to get my game to where I can get 20-plus free throws. That's a goal. A lot of times, I come up short, but I want to keep the defenses honest."
Said Collins: "He shot 15 free throws. You can always tell with Jerry. Normally, if he shoots a lot of free throws, his field-goal percentage is high, because he's attacking and not settling. Normally, his three-point attempts are not many. If you see five or six threes, you'll see five or so free throws, and he'll shoot 40 or so percent."
By contrast, Michael Jordan, who had 19 points, didn't take a shot in the second half until 7:48 remained, but the basket pushed Washington's lead to seven. Jordan connected again on a three-point play a minute later to extend the lead to 10 points and effectively settle the contest.
"Someone has to take a back seat," Jordan said. "Jerry was playing well, and playing in a great rhythm, and I just rode with him for a while. I just tried to defensively keep up the pressure and when it came my turn, I took my shots. The biggest thing for us was defensively to stop this team."
Miami (21-45) took a 52-50 lead early in the third quarter, and Collins took a timeout. Off the break, the Wizards went on a 10-0 run, and Stackhouse had six points in the spurt, capping the run with a tomahawk dunk. By no means was the game over at that point, but Washington had at least asserted control.
"We're upset with ourselves at halftime," said forward Christian Laettner, who had eight points, 12 rebounds and five assists, to go with three steals.
"It was a tie game and we felt like it can't be a tie game on our home court. We're mad, he [Collins] yelled at us a little and we changed up things a little."
The Wizards shot only 43 percent for the game, but Collins attributed that to Miami's aggressive, physical defense that kept a body on Washington's players throughout with intense pressure.
"That was a grind-it-out win," Collins said. "They are a tough team to play against. When you play Miami and Pat Riley and his defensive schemes and how hard they get into your body and play defense, it's a tough game. I was really proud of our guys, especially in the second half."
With only 16 games left in the season, five more home games and a looming six-game trip to the West Coast, where Eastern playoff hopes often go to die, the Wizards have precious few opportunities to right themselves to make a postseason push.
They could ill afford to squander another one of them against the lowly Heat, which inflicted one in a series of bad losses on Washington two weeks ago in Miami.
"We need to start playing better on the road, because we're about to go on the road and we need to get some wins," Laettner said. "On the road, you really have to come together and play as a team and be tough and resilient."
Next for Wizards
Site:MCI Center, Washington
When:Tuesday, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)